The first word that comes to me is overwhelming, and the word stays there for quite some time, blocking out almost everything else. Eventually, I get my thoughts together: the book is beautifully written, and the research is (well, there's that word again… ).
Photo of de Waal from www.bbc.com
The overwhelming bit is not only the research, it is also the long list of artists and writers and royalty and famous people who not only rubbed shoulders with de Waal's ancestors but were also important parts of their lives. At times, especially in the beginning, it all becomes too much. I really wondered if I was interested in hearing about de Waal's relatives in such a detailed manner.
However, at the same time, it was very interesting to be given such personal perspectives on historical periods and people who are so intimately connected with all the different art and literature movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the book moves on and the characters become more and more entwined with the history of the period, it becomes more engaging and more readable. The name-dropping begins to make more sense, and I even find that I am more sympathetically inclined towards some of the characters.
It is an amazing picture of that period of our history.
The hare with amber eyes of the title is a netsuke, one of 624. Netsuke are very small Japanese sculptures, usually rounded, that were first created in the seventeenth century. As Japanese dress of the time had no pockets, people would hang a small container on a cord from the sash of the garment, and the netsuke were used to loop through the cord and fasten it to the sash. Eventually, they became less necessary from a practical point of view and more treasured as a collector's item.
Although de Waal uses this particular netsuke as an anchoring point for the book, the book is all about collection: netsuke, small things, big things, people…
Towards the end of the book, de Waal writes (possibly paraphrasing Proust, who was one of the many literary figures in the book): “Even when one is no longer attached to things, it's still something to have been attached to them; because it was always for reasons which other people didn't grasp… “ (pp.346-347) and, finally, almost at the end of the book, he writes: “ It is not just things that carry stories with them, stories are a kind of thing too. Stories and objects share something, a patina.” (p.349).
At first glance, the book may appear to be about things, but it is actually about people and how people and things and stories are all inscrutably woven together to create that which we call life.